The Cloud of Unknowing

Guide: Reverend Dr. Emma Pennington, a Canon of Canterbury Cathedral.

Transcript Notes Further Resources


We’re very fortunate to have with us today the Reverend Dr. Emma Pennington, a Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, who has a special interest in English mystics.She has recorded a series which can be found on the Canterbury Cathedral YouTube page and has written a book about Julian of Norwich called At the Foot of the Cross. Emma, today we are going to be talking about The Cloud of Unknowing, and a lot of the time we’ll be referring to the ‘Cloud author’, because the author of the Cloud of Unknowing is anonymous. What can we know about the writer?

It is a bit of a shame this one because we really don’t know very much at all about who this person might have been. There is a corpus of writings that he’s written, it’s not just the Cloud itself, but we can kind of piece bits and pieces together. And it seems that he’s probably quite well educated, he might have been educated through the schools. He certainly refers to some of the topical issues of the time, particularly around science in the Oxford school—but again, it’s only surmising. We know he’s writing around the late 14th century, and also that he was probably part of the rigorous Carthusian Order. And I keep using the word ‘he’ because we’re pretty much sure that it was a he, because he’s sitting in this seat of being an instructor and then guide on the contemplative path for a younger solitary. 

Could I just interrupt there for one moment, before we go on? What makes the Carthusian Order different from other monastic orders? Very briefly. 

Okay. So briefly, there are many orders around at the at the end of the 14th Century. The thing about the Carthusians is that they were very much devoted to a kind of solitary life, but within a community. If you’ve ever been to Mount Grace Priory up in Yorkshire, there are the ruins of a Carthusian monastery. And you can see they all have their little houses in which they live, and they read, and they work. And then there’s one church that they might come together in, so they are more like hermits, living together, rather than forming a community. And there’s a very strict form of silence. So a bit like the Cistercian monks at the time. But they lived in community, the Carthusians lived in their in their houses, and they were notorious for their book dissemination. So a lot of the medieval texts that have come down to us have come through down that order. 

So we know that he was educated, and very probably associated in some way with the Carthusian Order. What else can we know about him? 

I’m afraid that’s about it. That’s all we can know. I mean, I suppose the other thing that we could surmise is that he’s sitting in the role of director, this is a letter, that he’s replying to a young man, twenty-four years old, who’s asking about the solitary life. He’s obviously a person who has some wisdom, or otherwise they wouldn’t go to him. And possibly, he may have been a solitary himself. Apart from that, I think that’s about it, really.

Okay, so you’ve said he’s writing to a younger man instructing him in a contemplative life. What is his big message?

It’s written to a young man who is a solitary—and when we say solitary, we really do mean on your own, living the life of prayer and dedication to God. The life of prayer would have been quite structured, they would have known what prayers to say, following the Liturgy of the Church, which would be mirrored for the contemplative. But he’s writing to a young man who has obviously come to a point in his spiritual life where he’s kind of hit a wall. And it’s not unknown, so he’s writing into a situation that is quite common for those people who would have been in the solitary life. And it’s basically: how on earth do I pray? I’ve used all the tools of prayer. And I have this intense desire and yearning to know God better. And yet I find myself in this place, which can only be described by the Cloud of Unknowing author as the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’. 

So all the tools of prayer are sort of falling away, and he’s finding himself with just this kind of naked intent to know God. What the Cloud author is doing is trying to help him understand what prayer is and who God is, and how we have to change our way of praying because of how God is. He’s using a long tradition, a very old tradition that goes way, way, way, way back, which is basically: that we have the incarnation, and through Christ we can know everything about God—through the person of Christ. But then we get to a point where the Incarnation then has to—not necessarily incarnation, but the manifestation of God within the world—has to be negated to actually know God as He is, all unknowing, ineffable, beyond knowledge. 

So the young man has used all his reasoning, and all his logic to get to this place, and he finds it’s failing. Now he has to make this ontological leap to start negating everything that he knows to get to the place where he sits in a place of unknowing, ‘naked’ as the cloud author says, before the presence of who actually God is; because anything else is less than God. That’s what he’s doing. That’s to say the ontological shift, and then he’s getting giving him tools to be able to actually get to that place. So, using the naked intent, he talks about wrapping that intent within a word, like ‘love’, and piercing the Cloud of Unknowing, so they can actually know God as He is in Himself. 

That’s the basic idea. It’s all about who God is, but it’s all about, as well, our inability as human beings to know God in Himself.

And before we talk about the method a little bit more, could we talk about the tradition within which the Cloud sits?

The Cloud sits within, as I say, a very old tradition, and it’s best to kind of be taken back to actually where it begins, right at the beginning. So if you don’t mind me doing a bit of a bit of a history…

Please begin at the beginning!

The Cloud of Unknowing sits within a tradition which is known as mystical theology. And mystical theology began around the time of the theologian Origen, in about 184 to 254 AD. This is all about trying to understand God as Himself, as He is. There is this word called ‘theoria’, which comes from the Greek meaning contemplation. Origen begins this tradition that you can know God as He is, through the act of contemplation, which is a prayer practice. And he says, ‘You know, God in creation, so you can contemplate what is intellectual, you can contemplate the world, you can contemplate the Bible, and the person of Christ, and that will lead you to the place of God’. That’s what Origen starts to talk about. So he sees knowledge as leading us to union with God through the person of Jesus Christ, 

But then we come on to Macarius, in 300 to 391 AD. He sees theoria slightly differently. He sees theoria, not just as me contemplating God with all my with all my faculties, but much more as an encounter within the human heart, an interaction with God. And it seems as the highest gift that God can give us is just this ability to actually know him in himself. And this is seen as being something completely unique for each individual. So we’re all given the capacity to know God in Himself according to according to our gifts. Some may have more capacity than others, all right, so it could become a bit tiered. The result of that is it cultivates the virtues within us, so we become better people. We’re able to love God with all our faculties, but we’re able to love our neighbour as ourself. 

Then we come to the Cappadocian Fathers. We’re getting there! We’re nearly there! The Cappadocian Fathers are St. basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and they are writing around 350 to 400 AD. They see theoria, this contemplation, as the highest experience that we have. We’ve slotted in this word now, ‘experience’. It’s not just about knowing something, it’s now about experience. They are the people who introduced the is the idea that when you experience God in Himself, you get to this place where you enter a kind of darkness. It’s not a literal darkness, it’s a kind of ignorance. We can’t go any further with our faculties. And they bring in this idea of the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’. 

Gregory of Nyssa uses that scriptural passage where Moses ascends the hill, Mount Sinai, and there encounters God, but he doesn’t see his face, he encounters him in a cloud. And that’s the image that he uses to try and express this idea that, you’re only really going to know God as He is because of what He’s not. 

Is the idea there that you’re closer to God in that ignorance?

Absolutely. That’s entirely right. Because you’re because you’ve actually moved beyond your human faculties. If you think about it, our human faculties are taking evidence from the outer world, but it’s taking it in into us, you know, and then we process it, and then we create. So it’s kind of us centred, whereas what the Cloud of Unknowing places us in is a place where all our faculties are failing. And it’s at that point, that we have more chance of knowing God as He is in Himself. 

So that tradition, that really strong tradition, is then taken into the sixth century. And the writer pseudo-Dionysius is he’s known. And he writes this text called The Mystical Theology. And it’s that text which we know our cloud author knew, because he does a very loose translation of it, called Dionysius his divinity. It’s here that God is described distinctly as being in darkness, and that theoria becomes the process of self-emptying, ‘kenosis’, so that we can get to that place where we sit in that realm of God—of not knowing, not using our faculties, but reaching out into the darkness. 

And that’s the stream which the Cloud comes from. This has also got an overarching kind of name. It’s called the ‘apophatic’ tradition, or negative theology. The ‘catophatic’ tradition is about what we can know through our manifestations of God in the world. And the apophatic is the negative.

And pseudo-Dionysius is particularly important we said for the Cloud author as an influence. He says, I think, that what he is writing is absolutely in accord with, a summary of almost, pseudo-Dionysius. He’s quite an interesting figure. Can we just say a little bit about who he is? 

I don’t know very much about him. But he was writing in the sixth century, and he was very influenced by Christian Neoplatonism, which was around at that at that time. It is trying to understand the Christian story of God and Incarnation through the teachings of Plotinus mainly. Plotinus has this image of the nous of God, which is equated with God. And again, it’s about moving towards God and this sort of union with otherness and with the divine. We call him pseudo-Dionysius because he gets muddled up with someone who was St. Paul knew.

Dionysius, the Areopagite, who Paul was said to have converted in Acts.

Exactly. Which is why we call them pseudo-Dionysius; because it’s not actually that person. He’s writing much, much, much later, in the sixth century.

So this is the tradition within which the Cloud author sits. There are other mystical traditions. And in fact, in the 14th century in England, there is a bursting out of mystical writing. Firstly, why might there be an increase in interest in mysticism, in various kinds of mysticism, then? And then maybe we could talk about the ways in which the cloud author is different from some of the other authors in that period?

This is a fascinating period of history. Well, I find it particularly fascinating! It’s really interesting that there is this flowering, particularly in vernacular religious writing. I mean, there’s always lots in Latin and through the church, but this is very much vernacular, and it’s writing for people, particularly for those who were solitaries, or seeking a contemplative life. But what happened was a lot of these texts were then redacted and annotated so that they could be read by ordinary lay people. And it’s interesting, isn’t it, when you start reflecting on the world in which these texts were written. People were obviously seeking for something much deeper, they were seeking to know God as He is. But they were also seeking deep comfort and reassurance because it was a pretty nightmarish time. I mean, we could say every period of history has a nightmarish aspect, but there’s something about this late 14th century that really seems to tune in with our own experiences today, because we’ve all just come out of a pandemic. There was very much a pandemic happening in the late 14th century. It sounds kind of uncanny sometimes, some of this. There was this strange sickness that was in East Asia, in China, that people had heard about in 1346, and then it reached the shores of England in 1348. Within a year, it had just killed thousands and thousands of people. Two years later, it is estimated about a third of the population had died. And priests were particularly hit, because they would go and give the last rites to folk who are dying of the Black Death as it’s known, or the bubonic plague. But of course, they didn’t have vaccines like we have, so it just went on and on, every few years. It just kept coming back and coming back and coming back. So, really awful time. 

And then there was war in Europe. The Hundred Years’ War literally was one hundred years of battles that started in 1337. And two great dynastic families, the Plantagenets and the House of Valois, just kind of hitting each other, and you have all the people who died through that in foreign lands. 

Then there were civil unrest. You can see, there are so many parallels? 

Yes, the peasants revolt? 

Yes. The Peasants’ revolts, you know, which is about harsh taxation. And also, there was unrest within the church. So we had this group of people, called the Lollards, and who were of questioning Church authority.

In relation to the Cloud author—the Lollards are condemned by him, so he is standing up for doctrinal orthodoxy.

Yes, and actually that’s interesting, because one of the reasons he sometimes is thought of as being a priest is because of those references do to standing up.

Into this whole mix, you have this group of five, the five English mystical writers, as we call them. Of course, they wouldn’t have called themselves that at the time. It’s Evelyn Underhill, actually, writing at the beginning of the last century, who grouped them together and called them mystics. They wouldn’t have called themselves mystics. They would have called themselves, you know, devotional writers or visionaries. 

The first is Richard Rolle, who notoriously went to become an educated young man in Oxford but was so disgusted with the aridity of the teaching of the schools of Oxford that he put on his sister’s shift, which is her undergown, and ran off into the woods. He then ended up in Yorkshire, and wrote a lot of text. Again, specifically for people to help them in their spiritual life. 

And then we have Walter Hilton, who was an Augustinian canon, associated with the Priory at Thurgaton. He wrote his famous work known as the Ladder of Perfection or the Scale of Perfection, which is quite a systematic text, but again, written for one person. That became incredibly popular. 

Then we have my favourite, my personal favourite, which is Julian of Norwich. She’s a bit like the cloud author, we really don’t know anything about her. But that’s because she intentionally erases herself from the text, so you really don’t know much about her. But in 1373 she had a vision of the cross, and out of that vision came a whole series of revelations. And then about twenty years later she started, after having thought about them for years and years, she started writing them down, and we get her text, which is known as Revelations of Divine Love. 

Then there’s Marjorie Kemp, who knew Julian of Norwich, she was in King’s Lynn. She’s probably the most colourful of all of them. She went on lots of pilgrimages, and she would go and speak out against the Church authorities. She nearly got accused of being a Lollard herself. But she was a very bright woman, I think. And she writes this text, which is sort of—it’s written by priests, held by priests—and so and so it feels a bit more like it’s an apologetic of her life, trying to justify herself and her ministry. 

And then finally, we come to our Cloud of Unknowing author, who sits in this group, but also is slightly different. 

It’s quite an eclectic group. You couldn’t say they were all the same. If you’ve got them all in one room, it would be an interesting dinner party, let’s say that! But they are all writing in English. That is the that is one of the key things. 

And in what ways would the Cloud author differ from some of the others? Say, you take initially Julian of Norwich, what makes their perspectives so different?

Okay, so Julian fits very clearly with what you said earlier about the cataphatic tradition. She has a has a vision of love, of what God’s love is like, but very much through the Incarnation of Christ. She looks at Christ on the cross and sees that as the ultimate expression of God’s love for us, so deeply comforting to people then as it is now. The Cloud author, he sees the importance of love, but he doesn’t see the point so much of God’s love as of our love, our will, our intention, so is very slightly different. And he sees that love as being our motivating force to know God. And he sits in the apophatic tradition, and says that you can only really know God, as we’ve been saying, if you pass to the cloud of unknowing, and then even beyond into God’s divine light…

And Marjorie Kemp, the Cloud author would perhaps have even more problems with. Is that right?

I think you’ve got it spot on! The cloud author is quite critical of people who have visions and experiences. And let’s say, Margery Kempe had lots of visions and experiences. Particularly a sort of screaming and weeping, quite an excessive display of her experience of Christ. She would have lots and lots of visions where she would imagine herself into the Bible, and the stories of Jesus, so that she would see herself as she would see herself at the birth of Jesus, and baby Jesus would be handed over to her to wash, all kinds of things like that. To that very kind of biblical, experiential, the cloud authored would say: No, no, no, no, you’ve got to get beyond that, my dear. And yet, if you think about it, later people like St. Ignatius of Loyola, are very much in her tradition of really getting into the biblical stories and living them and breathing them, and knowing God through living scripture.

What exactly is the problem, according to the Cloud of Unknowing, with these kinds of ecstatic experiences?

Well, I think the problem with the ecstatic experiences is that it’s a very fine line between something that being given to you and something you are actually manufacturing within yourself. So even then, they had a very clear sort of understanding of the ego. Not that they would have called it ego, but the ability for us to manufacture. He has that lovely image about the use of language as well. Be careful of the language that you use. Don’t misread my language. When I say ‘up’, I don’t mean, you look up, gazing at the heavens. He says, you’ve just got it all wrong. So he’s very cautious about that. And also, it’s seen as one of those things, that you also have to get rid of. That’s not what God is about. It’s more than that. 

That leads us nicely into talking a about the themes of the book in a little bit more detail, first of all, who is the book written for?

Well, we know it’s written for this twenty-four-year-old man, because it’s addressed to him. And we know that he’s had this calling to be a solitary, because that’s right at the beginning of the text. So we know, it’s for him. We also get the sense that it’s written for other people who are called to this contemplative lifestyle, which is, you know, an entire devotion of your life to God. And right at the beginning, there’s that famous injunction, which says, don’t just hand this around willy-nilly, be careful who you hand this to. Only people who will understand what I’m talking about should read this, because there’s too much in it that could be misread or misunderstood. So only give it to those whom you feel are on the same kind of spiritual path as you.

How seriously do you think we should take this injunction? Should we not read it if we’re not prepared to go and live perfectly contemplative lives?

It’s a really, really good question. And it’s one that I’ve kind of lived with, because I encountered all these texts as an English student reading medieval studies, as well, English and mediaeval studies. So obviously I come out of the School of the English faculty, which very much looks at these texts, as you know, as literary classics that you can criticise and pull apart. 

Then there’s the other part of me, which is the priest, that says, actually, there may be something in this, you know, just be careful. And then the pragmatic in me also kind of says, well, isn’t it interesting, what he’s done is he’s helped us to approach this text, with quite a serious intention. This is not like reading the newspaper on a Sunday morning. This is about giving yourself to the text, and understanding what the text says, rather than about what you think about it. 

I find that quite an interesting and refreshing kind of way into this, and how to read the injunction, because it doesn’t deny anyone from reading it, which you could if you read it in a very religious way. But it does say to us, just come to this text and let it speak to you, and try and leave your preconceptions on the door. And anyway, it is a fourteenth century text, you cannot get into the mindset of a fourteenth century person anyway. So, I think it’s kind of helpful for me.

I like the way he gives instructions, too: it has to be read all the way through, and you should read it slowly. So, when we get into the text itself—there are prayers at the beginning, and we have a preface—then we get into the text, and straightaway he begins to explain the technique for achieving a kind of union with God that was lost after the Fall. Could you tell us about that technique in a bit more detail than you did earlier? Maybe we can pause and interrogate some aspects of that.

Absolutely. As you as you say, he goes to the nub of the issue straightaway, very quickly goes into this whole idea about if you really want to know God, then it’s going to take you to a place where your faculties are going to fail you. And he describes this as we’ve been talking about as the place of unknowing, or the cloud of unknowing. But think of it as the place of the unknown. Then he says, ‘don’t worry about it. It’s just quite nice. Don’t freak out, but stay there.’ And you get the sense that it’s actually quite difficult just to stay there. He gives us another cloud, which is known as ‘the cloud of forgetting’, and this is put under your feet. 

When thoughts come to the surface, we should push them down under the cloud of forgetting. If you’re thinking that these people in their cells or wherever are saying a lot of rote prayers, so saying the Lord’s Prayer or saying the Creed, they’re saying the prayers of Mary, it was just lots of rote prayers, so they’re using lots of images. The medieval church was full of images and devotional acts, and all these kinds of things. And he’s saying, you know, don’t worry about those, don’t even worry about those, push them under your cloud of forgetting. Then when thoughts come up, again, push them under the cloud of forgetting. 

Instead, he says, take your naked intent, which I suppose means the singular intent, your intent to love God, and put a word around it, a word like ‘love’, and just constantly use that word, I suppose to direct all your thoughts, and all your feelings to God so that you’re no longer thinking, let’s think about Mary and how lovely she is. Or let’s say the Lord’s Prayer, and what is the Lord’s Prayer all about, and God and Gethsemene and all those kinds of things. So you’re not you’re not in this imaginative world of prayer, and meditation, which was very big in the medieval time; using your imagination, to place yourself within the life of Christ. He’s saying, don’t do any of that. Just be with your love alone.

Okay, so the key is to relinquish all thoughts, thoughts of the self, thoughts of God, thoughts of what you’re going to have for dinner, and use this mantra, almost, this word, which is kind of emptied of content, because you’re not meant to be meditating on the word itself. The word is short, ‘God’, or ‘love’, and you’re using that to help you push down the thoughts beneath the clouds of forgetting

That’s right, yeah. 

And then then what, what do you hope happens?

Then he starts talking about some of the difficulties that this is going to face. But also, like probably any good tutor, he starts to talk about some of the effects that this will have, and how it will improve your life of virtue, and how you will you will see this way of being—it is a kind of a prayer practice, but it’s more than a prayer practice that changes your ontological way of being, so that the world and how you interact with the world, is quite different. 

And he talks a lot about the image of Martha and Mary. You probably know the story of Martha and Mary. Martha is always busy, busy, busy, and Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus, just listening and, and he literally does divide this, as they did at that time, and interpret it as two ways of being, two ways of life. One, the active, we have to get on with life and do all the things. And one way you are a solitary, a contemplative, and you purely sit at the feet of Jesus. 

Now, he does say that these two are not always quite as separated as they appear. There are good aspects of the active life, and part of your life will be active. But he does say it is the contemplative, the Mary in you, which is the one you really need to cultivate, the one sitting at the feet of Jesus. He’s quite practical like that, in seeing that life is quite complex. But for you to strive for the solitary in the perfect the perfect life.

So he’s in no doubt that the contemplative life is actually the superior of the two?

Oh, absolutely. He’s very clear about that. I mean, he’s sort of aware of the active life, but that’s very second best. Throughout you do get this sense in the interpretation of that parable, that, you know, you are an active or are you a contemplative. Whereas I think in modern thinking, we’d probably say that most of us have a Martha and a Mary, within us. But he’s very clear that that the Mary’s way of life is the better and you must pursue that over and above the active life. 

We’ve talked about some of the benefits of pursuing a contemplative life. He even goes so far, I think, as to say that it actually makes you look better, even. But can we talk a little bit about the experience of attaining union with God, or something like a union with God?

So I think, for the cloud author, this is something that is very fleeting. He doesn’t say that you won’t ever have union with God. And I suppose that is known as, so you have the different orders of life, to the active, the contemplative, but then also part of the contemplative is the perfect, and the perfect is union with God. And so, experience of that he expresses is something that it is very, very fleeting, and most of our life is spent within the Cloud of Unknowing. And if we are gifted, that those moments of realisation, then then that in a sense, is the goal, but also he hits he’s very clear that that the union with God is only ever in this life, a precursor of the next life, when, when we have the beatific vision. So in a sense, he kind of says it’s, you know, it’s what you must aim for. But also see, it’s only a, you’re just getting an insight into what it’s going to be like later. And so and so that can be quite comforting, in a sense, because it means that, you know, if, if that’s if you’re not gifted with that, then this is something that you will you will be given when you come face to face with God himself in the next life, the beatific vision.

And if we’re aiming at it, we should be aiming at it with a sharp Dart of longing love. What does he mean by that?

It’s an interesting one, isn’t it? The sharp Dart of longing love, I mean, I guess there’s this also has a kind of biblical idea as well, going back to the sort of the trying to penetrate the cloud with your love and your desire. But also there is that other aspects to the sort of mystical world, where God is seen as sending a dart of love into the, into the heart of the of the Christian, who then is filled with love. So it’s a kind of reversal of that, you know, so God sends a data of His love, that sort of breaks the beloved hearts, and makes her desire God. And the response to that is to send our dose of love back to the Cloud of Unknowing. So I think that’s where that that image comes from.

We spoke a little bit earlier about our concepts being only, at best, approximations of God, which is why we need to let them go to draw closer to God. And we spoke about language, specifically, and prepositions, and metaphors not reaching to God. That’s been a part of the Cloud that’s particularly interested people in the 20th century, as philosophy became focused on language. People see similarities in the work of Wittgenstein, and so forth. Can we talk a little bit about the philosophy of language, sometimes latent, sometimes explicit in the Cloud of Unknowing?

 Yes, it’s interesting. Yeah, I did a little bit of a study about its Bertrand Russell and all that it sort of group and the how do you? How do you talk about something which is ineffable, you should just be silent, because it’s ineffable. And so he is really cautious, about about the use of language, that actually even the language we use, is not enough to talk about God. And so in so in a sense, you get this feeling that actually, when we talk about God, we have to either keep saying, You know what, this isn’t who God is, you know, we have to, to keep apologising in a sense to say we were only using fallen, fallen words, and words have interpretation and different meanings. So we have to keep qualifying our words, or there is an actual sense in which the only real response to God is silence. And I guess that’s why the cloud of unknown has been so seminal for a lot of the modern contemplative practices, which are using this kind of practice to take people into a place of deep, deep silence where words no longer needed external words, but also internal words of the masa, nations of the mind. So, so the centering prayer technique and, you know, Christian meditation, which also builds on Eastern meditation, taking you to a place where language is just seen as, yeah, once again needs to be negated is the thing I quite like about about him. And I think the way he sort of laughs a bit, the way people get the language wrong, I think is is quite, it’s quite helpful, is quite helpful, particularly, in you know, as I work in the church, where language is very wordy, and we use a lot of words, a lot of words. And so to remind you, that actually, at some point, you know, you must use the words as springboards to know God, rather than think the words contain God somehow.

Yes, and I think his warning about words misleading, prepositions misleading, leading you to think that God is up in heaven, and so forth, are useful warnings. I think it’s very easy to be misled by language, and to read into contexts, to read literally metaphors, metaphors where they don’t belong, in religious and other contexts. You spoke a little bit about the influence the cloud has had on contemplative prayer movements, how has it been received and interpreted over the centuries since it was written?

Again, that’s a it’s a, it’s an interesting question. And when you consider what an amazing little text This is, actually, it really, it really didn’t disseminate very far. At the time, we only have 17 manuscripts of the cloud, which isn’t, which is not many, when you consider that there really are quite quite a lot of Richard roll. So there may be something about that, that period, because Julian is similar. We have very few manuscripts of hers, and that there was, so at the beginning of the 15th century, there was pretty much clamped down by Archbishop Arundel on teaching within the church, and also how, who could teach who could write an odd possibly as a response to the law of movement. And so it may be that a lot of these texts that were being read by ordinary people pretty much went underground. And it might be that the cloud bit like Julian just went underground, and it was circulated by only a few people. There were two Latin translations of it in the 15th century. But then it wasn’t really until Augusten Baker in the 17th century, who then made it made it more well known. And then the text really came to light bit like Julian and a number of the other texts with, with those early 20th century Evelyn Underhill, those people who were really rediscovering these texts. And from there, I have to say, I think it’s taken off. Lots and translations, not so many editions of the Middle English, because it’s not, it’s not the easiest of Middle English to to read, unlike Julian, where her Middle English is, is, you know, has been updated by, by by sort of scribes over over the years in the 1760s 70s century. That hasn’t happened to to the cloud. And so you do get quite a dense Middle English text. So most people would read it in the translation, and, and all that influence that it’s had on modern contemplative practices, I think is really interesting. And so it’s still seminal, for English faculties to know and read about, and even some philosophy, and but it’s, it’s really, I think, would say, in the worlds of the contemplative prayer movement of of the last, you know, 1020 years, that it’s really had quite an impact.

One thing I meant to ask earlier, the are some more challenging passages that you get in the cloud, which are about the devil and are actually quite graphic how should we understand his focus on the devil in this? 

Well, I think this is a this is once again, when you do suddenly realise that you are reading a 14th century text. And in a sense, the language that he’s using is not necessarily the language that we would understand any more. I always whenever I get all those sorts of texts about the the devil and all that kind of stuff. 

I think helper is a devil’s nostril and things like that.

I’ve been passing He just loves it because it’s so graphic. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Fairford church, where they have these most amazing stained glass windows of devils. It’s just phenomenal. It’s incredible. So there’s something very graphic about the about the mediaeval church, there’s something very visceral. And I, one of the things I quite like about it is that what they’re doing is using these images of the devil in a very objective way. Okay. And I think that’s quite helpful. Whereas today, a lot of a lot of what we understand as evil is actually we see is within ourselves. And in a sense, that can be quite more horrendous, really. Whereas because you have these objectification of what is perceived as evil, there’s a sense in which you can look at squarely in the face, and actually react and respond against it. Whereas with the modern concepts of everything within, that’s a much it’s a much harder battle, I think. So, you know, it’s a mediaeval text, you’ve got to take it on its own terms, and also try and understand what is lying behind the language. Why is he using that language, you know, to try and help you understand, which is, which is what I thought I’d say, because Julian is similar. She has, she has texts where the devil is sitting on her chest, you know, sort of laughing at her. And also, she has lots of blood streaming streaming blood, and some people just go can’t do with that can’t deal with it. It’s this whole thing about come to mediaeval texts, and try to let the text speak to you and look, look, look behind the language and say, Well, why? What’s his language using? How’s it been used? And what’s it trying to say that actually, I could get from it, because there’s always something we can get from from these, these texts. And he

wants to emphasise the dangers of being misled. And heading down a wrong prayer path or miss or or of deceiving oneself into thinking one having I think, in the context, Revelations when one is just exercising imagination under the influence of a nefarious power of some sort.

And I think Richard Rohr has this beautiful image, do you know, the devil comes as an angel of light? And I, I’d love that, because if you just think of the times, when you’re like really puffed up, and you’re really successful, you know, actually, you’re quite vulnerable, then to, you know, not this thing to caring about other people being very self centred, being bit narcissistic, you know, so that there is, as you say, the behind these images there is, there is something that can help us understand ourselves better, and God better.

And that’s another theme running through the book, modesty or humility. And he asks, he asked the novice to pray for his modesty. And he says that in order to embark on these contemplative practices in the first place, you need to be humble without sin, you have certainly need to go and confess and be absolved of sins before beginning but he always comes back to humility, modesty, why, why is that so important for him?


I think it’s probably, that this what we were just talking about this capacity of the human heart to deceive itself. And it’s the gift of humility, which actually helps to see us as, as, as who we really are, not what we think we are. And also, of course, one of the the humility is the counterpoint to pride. And pride is the chiefest of all the sins and pride spiritual pride, particularly in this area, is very dangerous. So it’s very easy to come in and say, I’ve been specially specially called out by God to this way of life. That’s all spiritual pride. So which is why keeps going back to humility. Also, I mean, they had a, you have to remember in the mediaeval church, that they had a very robust understanding of the nature of sin. So they had all these kinds of species and different different definitions, and they knew all their seven deadly sins, and they knew all the, you know that and they would use all that for their confession. So they, they had this whole understanding of all the different ways that we can sin, and the root of all of that the one virtue that can really counter out all of those is humility. So it’s going to what is the what is the real virtue that is most important that you have? And that’s an that humility. And that’s and that’s why he keeps going back to that. But I find it interesting with in all of these texts, all of them mystics, and particularly Richard Rohr and Walter Hilton, is they’re very, very keen to point out that the spiritual life is only comes out of of the moral life, you really need to have got your got your house in order, you know, before you can start thinking about the life of contemplation. And I think too, too often in our modern world is that we can we can cut out the moral life, it’s a hot, you know, and go, Oh, and the nice bits and contemplation. But no, they always bed it, have it in this bedrock have, you really got to try and sort out your inner world. I think the cloud author talks about sin as a big lump. You know, we have lumps in our world, don’t we, you know, and trying to, to deal with it as a lump as a cancer event, you know, get getting rid of that, so that you are then freed, to be able to contemplate God.

If people read the Cloud of Unknowing and they enjoy it, is there anything else you’d particularly recommend that they look into?

what in sort of background reading or…

In terms of background reading, to help them understand it better, or, in terms of reading other mystics or other writers they might also enjoy?

So there are, there are some sort of interesting books that you can that you can pick up on secondary information. One of the good ones is called the darkness of God, which is by Dennis Turner. So that looks at the negative, the negative negativity in Christian mysticism. So that looks at the whole background out of which the cloud author comes, then if you’re if you’re interested in the kind of English faculty area, Marian Glasgow, wrote this book, which is called games of faith, which is about the English mystics that’s really useful. And that tells you all about that goes much more into the language. We’ve just touched upon it here. But that really goes into the language and how he’s using language in his texts in different ways. But she looks at all the mediaeval mystics. And then there’s another another good one, which is called the Cambridge companion to mediaeval English mysticism. That’s a combination with with Vincent Gillespie, and Samuel fanous. And that places really gives you a much well, that sort of paints the the landscape of the devotional writing of that sort of period, and puts it within the a much more detailed historical context. So that’s the kind of, you know, the overview the much larger? What you know, I’m going to say read Julian. Absolutely. Like if you like the cloud, read Julian, and also read some of Richard roll. So Richard roll, he, he’s the form of living is probably one of his best texts, which is probably the most comparable to the, to the Cloud of Unknowing. And it’s only comparable in the sense of that it was written for someone in the solitary life, but it makes a really good source of, and this is another way you could do it. And it’s complete contrast in what he’s actually what he’s actually saying. But there’s something that’s that’s kind of similar underneath, which is about moving towards knowing God’s better.

Now, that sounds interesting. I would add, of course, that your next mistake should be Julian of Norwich. And you should, you should read Emma Pennington that the foot of the cross. But Emma, thank you very much for guiding us through a difficult text and lovely to see you.
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